Editor's note: This is the fourth of a series of articles on the financial crisis facing The Seattle Times.
Back in the early 1970s, I was asked to give an expert opinion on how newspapers could attract younger readers.
The event was a conference on the future of newspapers. I was a high school kid with big hair, working weekends as a newsroom aide at The Seattle Times, whose executive editor, James B. King, was also a conference panelist.
King looked like Hollywood's idea of a big-city editor. He was perfectly groomed, with streaks of gray across his temples. He smoked a pipe. His shirt sleeves were rolled up just so. His office was immaculate. Before Ben Bradley defined the image, Jim King sure looked the part.
And I was going to sit next to him and talk about the future of his profession. I was young, but I had no idea what young people wanted. There I was, hoping to someday move up to a reporting job at the Times and I was about to prove my stupidity.
I don't remember much about the conference, other than reading myself misquoted in the next day's paper.
This story illustrates a theme that has long run through The Seattle Times. Newspapers have long known they were losing readers, but no one knew what to do. The trend continued until household penetration for the Times fell from a high in the 1960s of about 46 percent to what is now, surely, far below 25 percent.
A growth in revenue from display ads made it easy to put aside this problem because newspapers remained enormously profitable. But then along came the Internet, which started swallowing advertising.
The Blethens, who own the Times, have always seemed to know that the good thing could end. Employees who worked there were regularly told that a recession could be coming or newsprint prices could be rising; either way, we had to live with tight budgets. The Blethens worried about threats to their franchise from Hearst, from television, from US West, from Microsoft. Each threat was real, though no one saw Craigslist coming.
It would be too easy now to criticize the Blethens for missing opportunities that could have diversified the business and therefore supported their small chain's flagship newspaper. Almost everybody in newspapers knew about television licenses, cable-TV franchises, or paging and cellular licenses. The Blethens could have placed their bets on those industries in their infant days and made big money, right?
They didn't and missed out, but that criticism is unfair because almost every one of those bets probably would not have dramatically changed their present-day difficulties. The Chandlers had television but felt a need to unload their Los Angeles Times assets. The Sulzbergers, owners of The New York Times, also hold TV stations, but their control of the company is under assault. The Grahams, owners of The Washington Post and Newsweek, stupidly sold wireless licenses for a song long ago. But their company today is buoyed by an unlikely source, the Stanley Kaplan subsidiary. Who would have guessed an SAT-prep company would protect a newspaper dynasty?
The trend lines for big newspapers, the overwhelming source of the most important content we get online, is worrisome. Characters like Sam Zell prowl for bargains.
Newspapers report on change but are not themselves good at it. They are conservative institutions, cautious about losing customers and unwilling to blow up convention. Papers today are better designed, written, and edited, but the paper on my doorstep isn't structured much differently than the product that landed at my parents' door in the 1970s.
It may be naive to look at today's trauma in newspapers and see any hope, but I do. Newsrooms may shrink and change, but there's one positive trend. Almost every newspaper with a decent Web site has noticed enormous growth in online readership, especially by those much-desired younger readers. Online advertising on the Web is surging, though not keeping pace with the losses on the print side. Costs and revenues are out of balance. The model we've enjoyed since Horace Greeley is broken.
I don't know if print will go away. Maybe with new gizmos and electronic "paper," the question will become irrelevant. But at least online, younger people are coming to content produced and edited by newspaper employees. Some of these young readers wouldn't touch a paper, but they visit the site. The Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer both report growing online readership.
Quality still draws customers. Little comfort, I know, as journalists lose jobs, editors cut budgets, and we lose opportunities to read those special enterprise pieces that keep me reading newspapers. But those younger readers mean there is a future, however different.